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Health Fusion: Lessons from a Norwegian lefse-making holiday tradition (Or, what to do when the dog eats the dough)

Rolling out Norwegian lefse is a holiday tradition in our house. It's a ritual that represents all things good — family, friends, laughter and gratefulness. In this NewsMD column, Viv Williams explores how seasonal traditions can boost your health, even when the family dog makes off with the lefse dough (recipe included).

When we get out the Norwegian lefse-making equipment, my family's excitement about upcoming holiday feasts and festivities reaches a near frenzy. The ritual conjures both wonderful memories of the past and anticipation of the much awaited events yet to happen throughout the month of December. My family's reaction to making lefse and other holiday traditions made me wonder about how anticipatory emotions benefit our mental and physical health.

But before I get into all of that, I'll share a little story that happened last year during a virtual lefse-making party we had with had with my sister's family and neighbors who are, essentially, like family.

I'm not Norwegian, but my hubby is and he takes the whole thing very seriously. I mean VERY seriously. In his opinion, lefse dough, which is made with potatoes, has to be perfect — no lumps. Ever.

"A cook can have lumps in his head, but not in his mashed potatoes," Dave says.

In fact, we almost had an international incident when I prepared the dough without running the potatoes through a ricer. I tried to hide them, but he still found the teeny tiny lumps when he rolled out the tortilla-like flatbread rounds. So we boiled up more potatoes for another batch of dough, half of which met another untimely fate. Jeb, our 115-pound Labrador retriever and stealthy opportunist, snatched the dough off of the counter and gulped it down. Laser fast. My husband tried to be stoic and feign irritation, but we all got a big laugh out of that one and it's become part of our family's holiday lure to be told and retold throughout time.

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Those events — the ones that make us smile when we recall them — are part of why traditions are so important for so many people. Below is a little bit of what I learned when I researched the potential health benefits of holiday rituals. I'll highlight two take-aways.

  • Rituals help lower anxiety: In an article titled, " Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety " (love that title), researchers found that rituals may help reduce anxiety because when people participate in recurring activities, they know what they have to do without thinking about it. Participating distracts them from worrying about stressful things. And we all know that the holidays can be stressful.
  • Cooking and eating together builds bonds: The Family Dinner Project compiled research and came up with a list of the benefits both kids and adults may experience when they prepare and share meals, including higher self-esteem, lower risk of addiction, lower risk of depression and better nutrition.

Traditions such as our annual lefse-making event, are part of what make the holidays so special. It represents the magic and the wonder of the season. It also reminds me of the goodness that exists in our world and in all people. And if that thought alone doesn't help lower your blood pressure, try making lefse.

Lance's Auntie Charlotte's Norwegian Lefse Recipe

Supplies (easy to find online): Lefse griddle, rolling pin, rolling pin sock, pastry board and cover, wooden lefse turning stick, 2 kitchen towels, plastic baggie for storage.

*Lefse takes practice. Be sure to check out Auntie Charlotte's hints at the bottom. They can really make a difference!

Ingredients: Makes 12 lefse rounds

Option No. 1: Using real potatoes

Russet potatoes (6 medium), 1/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup milk, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp sugar, 2 2/3 to 3 cups flour, extra flour for rolling, butter, sugar (white or brown)

Directions: Peel and quarter potatoes. Boil until soft. Drain and use a ricer to make sure all lumps are removed. Allow to cool in refrigerator. While potatoes are boiling (or cooling), mix all other ingredients and let sit for 30 minutes. When potatoes are chilled, mix in as much flour as you can to make a slightly firm dough (this is where experience helps). Heat griddle to 500 degrees. Form dough into a log and cut into 12 pieces. Roll them into balls. On a generously floured pasteboard and cloth, roll each dough ball into a thin, round circle (like a tortilla). Use the lefse stick to lift the lefse off the board and place on the griddle (griddle should be dry - no oil, spray etc.). Fry until bubbles form and the underside develops golden brown spots. Flip and fry other side. Remove from heat and place on kitchen towel to cool. While the lefse is cooling, place another towel on top so the lefse steams a bit more. Repeat. To serve, fold and place on serving tray next to butter and sugar so guests can slather and sprinkle their own. To store: allow to cool to room temperature then fold in quarters, and keep in sealed plastic bag or similar container to prevent drying.

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Option No. 2: Using potato flakes

Supply list is same as above.

Ingredients: 2 cups potato flakes,1 tsp salt, 1 tsp sugar, 1 cup milk, 1 cup cold water, 1 T vegetable oil, 1 T butter (melted)

Directions: Mix all ingredients except flour and let sit for 30 minutes. Then add 1 cup flour, mix and form into a loaf. Divide into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, and on a lightly floured pastry board and cloth, roll out into a thin round (like a tortilla). Heat griddle to 500 degrees. Use lefse stick to lift lefse off of the board onto the griddle (griddle should be dry — no oil, spray etc.). Fry until golden brown spots form, then flip and do the same on the other side. Pop any bubbles that form. Remove from heat and place on slightly damp kitchen towel to cool. While the lefse is cooling, place another towel on top so the lefse steams a bit more. Repeat until all doing is fried. To serve, fold and place on serving tray next to butter and sugar so guests can slather and sprinkle their own. To store: allow to cool to room temperature, fold in quarters, and keep in sealed plastic bag or similar container to prevent drying.

*Hints: As I mention above, there is definitely controversy among my family members about method! Some insist on potatoes, others, insist on potato flakes. And some says towels must be damp and others say they should be dry. But Auntie Charlotte has some hints that help either method:

  1. Batter/dough must stay cool. If your house is too warm, it can make dough too sticky while you're cooking.
  2. Even if you follow the directions, you may need to add a little flour.
  3. When rolling, use plenty of flour on surface to prevent sticking.
  4. Let lefse cool to room temperature before folding and storing.

Vivien Williams is a video content producer for NewsMD and the host of "Health Fusion." She can be reached at vwilliams@newsmd.com.

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Viv Williams

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